On Commuting and The Economy

Yesterday, I left downtown Cleveland at 3:45 headed to a 4 o’clock meeting. I was probably going to be 5-10 minutes late. Instead I ended up calling to reschedule, and still didn’t make it home till 6:15. Two and half hours, for a drive that usually takes me 45-55 minutes. Google maps says 38 minutes, but that’s not realistic on a weekday. As I was virtually at a standstill on I-77, and I saw some helicopters coming and going, I assume this was a very bad day for someone up ahead, and so as frustrating as the experience is, delaying my day (and many others) is a small price for life saving flights to the hospital.

But the traffic did get me to thinking, that most traffic jams are a multifaceted problem. I’m referring to those simply caused by congestion, fender-benders, or traffic stops (and the associated gawking). Wikipedia does a nice job of listing the negative effects. But I think in the current context of the US today, it’s worse than what they list. And I think we have the power to mitigate some of this.

As already mentioned in the Wikipedia list, there is opportunity cost, massive pollution increase, and psychological effects to traffic problem. What about our current time period makes this worse? Try the housing market. How? Workers commuting a long distance wanting to avoid the risks of long traffic tie-ups aren’t nearly as free to move closer to their jobs. Or they aren’t looking at far away jobs merely because of the commute. The tie-in between housing (mobility of workers) and jobs is clear, add urban congestion to that fire. Also, construction and maintenance projects that can make for better commutes aren’t exactly popular, particularly when tied to state and local budgets. Unlike the Federal Government, these state and local entities can’t run large deficits during times of tax revenue decline. Finally, consider the wasted fuel (which is getting more expensive with turmoil in the Middle East) and it’s effects on household budgets that are already stressed thin.

So what remedies exist?

The White House has been pushing for high speed rail projects across the country, but some states have turned the money down fearing the investment they would have to put with it. There are a lot of questions about the value, but it’s hard to imagine that making people more fluid is a bad thing for commute times and the job market. With this in mind, I asked a question about the speed of Ohio’s rail on quora.com.

Telecommuting has gained a lot of momentum, although I expect there has been some reduction during the recession (office space is not as much of an issue with a contracting workforce). While I’ve never been a big fan of working from home, it’s clear that it can save both the individual and company time and dollars.

GPS Systems are increasingly integrating traffic data. Just like emissions standards, having smart traffic systems as mandatory in cars could go a long way to assist in intelligent rerouting of commuters in the event of a backup. How many times have you been in a traffic jam and felt like you were rolling the dice when deciding whether to get off the highway and try another way? There are even social GPS systems like Waze that attempt to address this.

Google has been working on driver-less cars for a while now. Certainly safety, reliability and such are an early concern during testing. Once refined and proven, however, this technology would drastically reduce accidents, traffic stops, and save lives. If everyone were driving such cars (this is a loooong way out), speed limits could be drastically increased with little additional safety risk.

IBM, under their Smart Planet initiative, have been researching and implementing smart traffic systems.

I can only hope that some of these advancements lead to the kind of information available to drivers that is portrayed in this video “A Day Made of Glass” by Corning.

I think the challenge is finding reasonable first steps and getting some coordination between these initiatives. Given a recession, and global competition from rising powers like China and India, the US could gain a lot output from simple efforts to improve traffic scenarios. And maybe civil engineers (specifically transportation engineers) are on top of these ideas, but for now it certainly doesn’t look like the US is leading the way with solving these issues. Even if commute times aren’t drastically reduced, with solutions like the Google car or the high speed rail, imagine the productivity increase of commuting free time with internet available. You could use the time to pay your bill, catch up on news, do correspondence course work, etc. For some commuters, this is already a reality.

Some of the stimulus money was aimed at these kinds of projects, but in my mind, not enough. The long term economic effects of a mobile workforce are undeniable. And these efforts could payoff in terms of global competition for years to come.

What do you think? Does your city have solutions or efforts under way for this? Do you see a particular effort or company leading the way with this? I see mostly efforst coming from technology companies, but are there other significant efforts to address these issues?

The Sun Also Rises (on the Technology Coast)

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. -Ecclesiastes 1:5-6

Apple released Mac OS X in 1999, using a BSD core and embracing many libraries and utilities of the open source world.  This excited open source advocates, and appeared a step in the right direction compared to Microsoft’s strict licensing and Sun’s Java licensing. 

Here we stand today, and the Apple iPhone is one of the most locked-down computers around.  Make no mistake, the iPhone is a computer.  Sun has open-sourced Solaris and Java.  Let’s not overstate the Microsoft moves, but they have made moves to interoperate with open source libraries, and are releasing source of many new products on codeplex.  Windows is still locked down, office docs in strict formats, and the open source stuff is in a whacky license.  But it’s a start.

What will the next 10 years bring?